2009-04-16 04:16:42 UTC
Bob Dylan Exclusive Interview: Reveals His Favorite Songwriters,
Thoughts On His Own Cult Figure Status
Huffington Post | April 15, 2009 at 04:20 PM
In anticipation of the release of his 33rd album, Together Through
Bob Dylan sat down with rock critic and MTV producer Bill Flanagan for
rare and unusually candid conversation. The first three portions of
their meeting can be read at bobdylan.com, and the fourth installment
can be read here on the Huffington Post).
In the fifth installment, published below, Dylan reveals his favorite
songwriters, discusses whether he's a cult figure, and gives his
thoughts on trading on nostalgia and if he's a mainstream artist (to
view a slide show of Dylan's favorite's, click here).
Bill Flanagan: Going back to that song you wrote for the movie that
mentioned earlier, "Life is Hard," has the formality of an old Rudy
Vallee or Nelson Eddy ballad right down to the middle eight ("Ever
the day..."). Do you figure that if you start a song in that style,
stick with the rules right down the line?
Bob Dylan: Sure, I try to stick to the rules. Sometimes I might shift
paradigms within the same song, but then that structure also has its
rules. And I combine them both, see what works and what doesn't. My
range is limited. Some formulas are too complex and I don't want
anything to do with them.
BF: "Forgetful Heart" - how do you decide to put an Appalachian banjo
a minor key blues? Is it something you think of ahead of time or does
come up in the session?
BD: I think it probably came up at the studio. A banjo wouldn't be
of character though. There is a minor key modality to "Forgetful
It's like Little Maggie or Darling Cory, so there is no reason a
shouldn't fit or sound right.
Story continues below
BF: You wrote a lot of these songs with Robert Hunter. How does that
BD: There isn't any process to speak of. You just do it. You drive
car. Sometimes you get out from behind the wheel and let someone else
step on the gas.
BF: You must have known Hunter a long time. Do you remember where you
BD: It was either back in '62 or '63 when I played in the Bay area. I
might have met him in Palo Alto or Berkley or Oakland. I played all
those places then and I could have met Hunter around that time. I
he was around.
BF: Didn't Hunter play in a bluegrass band with Jerry Garcia?
BD: Yeah, it was either that or a jug band.
BF: Have you ever thought about composing anything with those
BD: I've never thought about that.
BF: Neil Diamond did an album years ago where he co-wrote with
BD: Yeah, that might have worked for him. I don't think it would work
BF: You don't think it would work for you?
BD: No. I'm okay without it. I'm not exactly obsessed with writing
songs. I go back a ways with Hunter. We're from the same old school
it makes it's own kind of sense.
BF: Do you listen to a lot of songs?
BD: Yeah - sometimes.
BF: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?
BD: Buffett I guess. Lightfoot. Warren Zevon. Randy. John Prine. Guy
Clark. Those kinds of writers.
BF: What songs do you like of Buffett's?
BD: "Death of an Unpopular Poet." There's another one called "He Went
BF: You and Lightfoot go way back.
BD: Oh yeah. Gordo's been around as long as me.
BF: What are your favorite songs of his?
BD: "Shadows," "Sundown," "If You Could Read My Mind." I can't think
any I don't like.
BF: Did you know Zevon?
BD: Not very well.
BF: What did you like about him?
BD: "Lawyers, Guns and Money." "Boom Boom Mancini." Down hard stuff.
"Join me in L.A." sort of straddles the line between heartfelt and
primeval. His musical patterns are all over the place, probably
he's classically trained. There might be three separate songs within
Zevon song, but they're all effortlessly connected. Zevon was a
musician's musician, a tortured one. "Desperado Under the Eaves."
all in there.
BF: Randy Newman?
BD: Yeah, Randy. What can you say? I like his early songs, "Sail
"Burn Down the Cornfield," "Louisiana," where he kept it simple.
Bordello songs. I think of him as the Crown Prince, the heir apparent
Jelly Roll Morton. His style is deceiving. He's so laid back that you
kind of forget he's saying important things. Randy's sort of tied to
different era like I am.
BF: How about John Prine?
BD: Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern
to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when
Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about
Stone" the soldier junky daddy and "Donald and Lydia," where people
love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that. If
had to pick one song of his, it might be "Lake Marie." I don't
what album that's on.
BF: A lot of the acts from your generation seem to be trading on
nostalgia. They play the same songs the same way for the last 30
Why haven't you ever done that?
BD: I couldn't if I tried. Those guys you are talking about all had
conspicuous hits. They started out anti-establishment and now they
in charge of the world. Celebratory songs. Music for the grand dinner
party. Mainstream stuff that played into the culture on a pervasive
level. My stuff is different from those guys. It's more desperate.
Daltrey, Townshend, McCartney, the Beach Boys, Elton, Billy Joel.
made perfect records, so they have to play them perfectly ... exactly
the way people remember them. My records were never perfect. So there
no point in trying to duplicate them. Anyway, I'm no mainstream
BF: Then what kind of artist are you?
BD: I'm not sure, Byronesque maybe. Look, when I started out,
culture was Sinatra, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Sound of Music. There
was no fitting into it then and of course, there's no fitting into it
now. Some of my songs have crossed over but they were all done by
BF: Have you ever tried to fit in?
BD: Well, no, not really. I'm coming out of the folk music tradition
that's the vernacular and archetypal aesthetic that I've experienced.
Those are the dynamics of it. I couldn't have written songs for the
Brill Building if I tried. Whatever passes for pop music, I couldn't
it then and I can't do it now.
BF: Does that mean you create outsider art? Do you think of yourself
a cult figure?
BD: A cult figure, that's got religious connotations. It sounds
and clannish. People have different emotional levels. Especially when
you're young. Back then I guess most of my influences could be
of as eccentric. Mass media had no overwhelming reach so I was drawn
the traveling performers passing through. The side show performers -
bluegrass singers, the black cowboy with chaps and a lariat doing
tricks. Miss Europe, Quasimodo, the Bearded Lady, the half-man
half-woman, the deformed and the bent, Atlas the Dwarf, the fire-
the teachers and preachers, the blues singers. I remember it like it
yesterday. I got close to some of these people. I learned about
from them. Freedom too. Civil rights, human rights. How to stay
yourself. Most others were into the rides like the tilt-a-whirl and
rollercoaster. To me that was the nightmare. All the giddiness. The
artificiality of it. The sledge hammer of life. It didn't make sense
seem real. The stuff off the main road was where force of reality
At least it struck me that way. When I left home those feelings
BF: But you've sold over a hundred million records.
BD: Yeah I know. It's a mystery to me too.